Murder in Lemberg: Politics, Religion, Book Review

Excerpt from Book Review :

e., after Kohn's death). In a way, Stanislawski is asking the reader to completely forget about contemporaneous elements of the case.

There was one man who was accused, went to trial and was convicted of Kohn's murder, but this was appealed and overturned. After the reversal of the conviction, the supreme court examined it again and the judgment was upheld. One of Stanislawski's arguments is that the accused was Orthodox and it was Orthodox writers and publishers who later tried to cover up the whole event, calling it merely a death -- not a murder. Stanislawski specifically points his finger at the publishing house Mosad HaRav Kook (p. 77), stating that they purposefully got it wrong.

Stanislawski's cover up story is great as it creates a lot of excitement and conspiracy, which is always fun to read, but the his story seems, for the most part, to be completely unsupported by the historical evidence and it also relies on somewhat questionable interpretation of the archival information. Stanislawski does admit that the murder of Rabbi Kohn must remain an unsolved case (p. 114), but he then states that he is quite sure that Orenstein and Bernstein were the guilty parties who conspired to murder Kohn because they were leaders of the Orthodox Jews and they were bitterly and fervently against his religious reform ideas. They were also the main tax farmers of Lemberg and they were wildly resentful of his attempts to ban meat and candle taxes. There are implications for a murder case in reference to the meat and candles as those taxes were not just beneficial to the Habsburg state, but they were also beneficial and profitable for the tax collectors. Stanislawski is quite adamant that they most certainly hired a hit man to do the deed (p. 113). He states:

Despite the fact that some of the witnesses who testified about the entry of the Orthodox Jew into the Kohn kitchen on that day were not the most reliable witnesses a prosecutor or a historian could wish for, it seems virtually certain that Abraham Ber Pilpel was indeed the man who put the arsenic into the Kohn family soup pot, and therefore that his original conviction by the Lemberg Criminal Court was correct. What precisely Pilpel's motives were is impossible to ascertain form the surviving documentation -- was he moved primarily by religious opposition to Rabbi Kohn, was he paid to commit this heinous act, or did he act out of a combination of these two motives? Most likely, although not provable on the basis of the evidence that has so far come to light, he was merely the hired hit man in a conspiracy launched, and paid for, by Herz Bernstein and Hirsch Orenstein, who themselves were motivated by a combination of financial self-interest and religious zealotry. (Stanislawski 112-113)

Abraham Ber Pilpel was convicted of murder and both Orenstein and Bernstein were indicted for conspiracy to murder and though Pilpel was found guilty but later the conviction was reversed, Orenstein and Bernstein were both considered to be not guilty. Their acquittals were upheld by the supreme court because of the "utter politicization of the case in reaction to the Revolution of 1848" (p. 113). Orenstein later took over the rabbinate of the city of Lemberg.

Stanislawski himself states that there is not evidence to prove that Pilpel was a hired hit man, but he bases his belief on the fact that many other of the co-conspirators were involved with the attacks on the rabbi previously. He also states that for the appellate and the supreme courts to dismiss charges against them proves the politicization around the murder. There is no evidence that anyone was paid off in the courts, but Stanislawski does say that it is a very real possibility. Yet, without proof of these things, we cannot know for certain that Rabbi Kohn was indeed murdered by soup that was poisoned at the hands of Pilpel, which is what makes Stanislawski's book a great read, but not an accurate telling of what really happened to Kohn and whether or not it was murder.

Works Cited

Stanislawski, Michael. A Murder in Lemberg: Politics, Religion,…

Sources Used in Document:

Works Cited

Stanislawski, Michael. A Murder in Lemberg: Politics, Religion, and Violence in Modern Jewish

History. Princeton University Press, 2007.

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